A tribute to Santha Bhaskar, Singapore’s doyenne of Indian dance
The A List pays tribute to Mrs Santha Bhaskar, pioneer of the arts in Singapore and beloved doyenne of Indian classical dance, who passed away on February 26. She was 82.
Mrs Bhaskar was the chief choreographer and artistic director at Bhaskar’s Arts Academy, a Singapore-based Indian classical dance, music, and theatre company founded by her husband KP Bhaskar in 1952. She first joined as an instructor, and over time became known for her complex choreographies that fused elements of Malay, Chinese, and Thai culture as well as different dance forms with Indian classical dance.
Creative and energetic to the last, Mrs Bhaskar was preparing for a show celebrating the 70th anniversary of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy at Stamford Arts Centre when she was suddenly taken ill and rushed to Tan Tock Seng Hospital, passing away just as the first song of the evening began.
Just a week before her passing, the 82-year-old graced the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) launch – spry and alert, and happy to be commissioned for one of the festival’s headline productions, Ceremonial Enactments, which draws from customs and rites across Singapore’s diverse cultures.
Growing up in Kerala, India, Mrs Bhaskar excelled in science and mathematics and had ambitions to complete her studies at university. But under the influence of her artistically inclined family, she was instead immersed in Bharatanatyam (a major Indian classical dance form originating in Tamil Nadu, originally performed in temples, often expressing Hindu religious stories and spiritual ideas), Mohiniyattam (a swaying, graceful dance from Kerala), and Kathakali (a stylised dance-drama form in the Malayalam-speaking southwestern region of Kerala distinguished by elaborately colourful make-up, costumes, and face masks). Her talent shone through, and masters such as Ramunni Panicker, Guru Kunchu Kurup and Kutralam Ganesam Pillai took a personal interest in her development.
Mrs Bhaskar arrived in Singapore in 1955 at the age of 16 following an arranged marriage to KP Bhaskar, a dancer-choreographer and teacher who had set up the first Indian dance academy in Singapore before returning to Kerala to find a bride who had a talent for dance. A mere 13 years after she set foot in Singapore, the Singapore Post office had commemorated her on a stamp issued in 1968, reflecting the young Republic’s multiracial society.
Making multiculturalism a reality was Mrs Bhaskar’s true-life work, although multiculturalism is an inadequate word, for she was a pioneer of interculturalism – moving beyond passive acceptance of different cultures existing side-by-side to push for meaningful dialogue and interaction between cultures
Mrs Bhaskar threw herself into Bhaskar’s Academy of Dance (later renamed Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society), the dedicated teaching wing of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy and, from the beginning, plugged into different artistic traditions. In her recollections for the Singapore Memory project, she said: “I came to Singapore and saw the beauty of other cultures. I absorbed all of that, and naturally, my dance and choreography styles reflected that. I’ve been influenced by Chinese and Malay dance as well as other dance styles, like ballet. If I were in India, that wouldn’t have happened because I wouldn’t even have seen Chinese dance.”
Crossing cultural boundaries became a hallmark of Bhaskar’s Academy of Dance. It became a fixture in Aneka Ragam Rakyat (People’s Cultural Concerts) – the multicultural shows performed all over Singapore in the 1960s to promote the appreciation of different cultures and help develop a sense of unity among the people amid the religious enmities and simmering racial tensions in the years before and after Independence. Harnessing the arts as a countervailing force for peaceful co-existence was critical in the evolution of a multicultural society, and the Bhaskars were in the vanguard.
In a video made by The A-List in 2015, Mrs Bhaskar sat down with fellow Cultural Medallion recipients Goh Lay Kuan (co-founder of the Singapore Performing Arts School) and Som Said (founder of Sri Warisan Som Said Performing Arts) and summed up her philosophy: “The dancers from different ethnic communities… they are not there as Indian dancers or Chinese dancers or Malay dancers – they are Singaporean dancers.”
Mrs Bhaskar’s unwavering commitment to teaching is marked by her decades-long association with the National University of Singapore, where she was the longest-serving artistic tutor. In 1977, she began to mentor a small group of undergraduates in Indian dance at NUS’ Centre for Musical Activities (now known as the NUS Centre for the Arts).
Intercultural exchanges informed Mrs Bhaskar’s practice almost from the beginning. Besides learning Malay dance from Nongchik Ghani of Sriwana and introducing Indian dance to dance pioneers like Lee Shu Fen and Som Said, she became interested in the Indian connection right across Southeast Asia. After creating Parinaamam in 1993, a piece that offered a new perspective on the traditional Ramayana, Mrs Bhaskar went to study Thai dance and music at Chulalongkorn University on an ASEAN exchange programme.
This inspired another cultural-fusion work, Manohra, which combined Indian dance with Thai dance styles and music. It was performed to much acclaim in 1996 and was restaged in 2009 and 2018. Rasa & Dhwani (2003) drew inspiration from a collection of local poems in different languages, while CHAKRA (2012) was the first traditional Indian dance production to incorporate sand art.
In her late 70s, Mrs Bhaskar revisited her childhood passion for science and mathematics, collaborating with researchers at NUS’ Centre for Quantum Technologies to investigate the connections between Bharatanatyam and quantum physics. Using those insights, she created Sambhavna 1.0 and Sambhavna 2.0, performed by NUS Indian Dance at the 2016 and 2017 NUS Arts Festivals.
The creative flame continued to burn brightly, and in 2019 came 28, a piece inspired by Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man drawing and two deep mathematical patterns – the golden ratio and the Fibonacci sequence, all expressed through meticulous choreography, richly textured visuals, and original music.
In recognition of her contributions to the local arts scene as an educator and performer, Mrs Bhaskar was conferred the Cultural Medallion in 1990, the highest accolade honouring individuals whose artistic excellence, contribution and commitment have enriched and distinguished Singapore’s arts and culture scene.
In 2016, Mrs Bhaskar was awarded the Public Service Star (Bintang Bakti Masyarakat) and in July 2019, aged 80, she headed the Singapore delegation at the ASEAN Contemporary Dance Festival in Indonesia. In 2021 she was inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame and was further honoured with the Meritorious Service Medal (Pingat Jasa Gemilang).
Her final work as the artistic director and resident choreographer for NUS Indian Dance was Thanmai, performed at the NUS Arts Festival 2022. Thanmai, meaning ‘True Nature’ in Tamil, was an artistic inquiry into the true nature of light through the lenses of science and spirituality. It was a fitting valedictory to a woman who had a deep and abiding interest in science and mathematics and who, by all accounts, was a guiding light for the hundreds of dancers she coached and mentored for more than half a century.
As an undeniable stalwart of the Singapore arts community, Mrs Bhaskar not only moved generations of aspiring arts practitioners but taught the community significant life lessons on staying relevant – especially in the last two years. Her digital collaborations such as Life in a Cloud and contributions to Ceremonial Enactments, to be presented at the upcoming SIFA, are testament to her characteristic openness to new creations through multimedia and immersive technology across sectors and cultures.
Ceremonial Enactments, Mrs Bhaskar’s final gift to the arts community, will run from 21-22 May at SIFA 2022. Learn more about it here.